Second Chances: Crossroads in the Kitchen
People working to overcome substance abuse problems and ex-offenders discover a welcoming environment in restaurant kitchens.
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Even if all of the systems are in place, working in the restaurant industry poses challenges for individuals aiming to restructure their lives. Foremost is that kitchen jobs, historically, attracted those already on the fringes. There’s a long history of embracing the behavior that got many people in trouble in the first place.
“If you were too high, or too weird, or too messed up, this is where you’d go. It’s less like that now, but I’m sure if you’re clean it’s hard to [adjust] into these environments,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group, a large restaurant company that works with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh as well as halfway houses operated by organizations such as Renewal, Inc.
Cooking in restaurants increasingly is viewed as a respectable, even esteemed, career choice, but the culture hasn’t yet caught up with the hype.
“There’s no other industry that [celebrates] alcohol, drugs, partying and running yourself into the ground as much as cooking,” says Borges.
On top of that, the current opioid epidemic has hit western Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas particularly hard. Owners and staff note that in the past year there have been overdoses at Pittsburgh restaurants while people were on-shift and later at their homes after shifts; people would have died had it not been for harm-reduction applications such as the use of the lifesaving drug Narcan. Although these overdoses weren’t limited to individuals from transitional organizations, most of those who are employed through them are in recovery.
“The opioid crisis is bringing everything to the surface. But drug and alcohol issues have been around a long time,” says Douglas C. Williams, president and CEO of Renewal.
Renewal was founded in 1958. The organization works with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and Allegheny County Jail, offering 650 beds in Downtown as part of a treatment and residential work-release program for persons convicted of crimes. Renewal partners with more than 65 employers in fields such as construction, roofing, technology and food service.
Organizations and restaurants work to build structural frameworks to prevent relapse. Renewal, for example, won’t place someone in early stages of treatment or with a significant history of relapse in a restaurant that serves alcohol; sometimes they will even make sure that a client doesn’t have to walk by a bunch of bars on their way home from work. Working the day shift isn’t always an option, but those hours, in general, provide less opportunity for temptation.
Other advantages that both clients and employers of second-chance organizations have is that drug testing is a standard and further rehabilitation is part of the game even if a person falters. “If the employer is willing, we reach out to get their view of what happened. Then we bring the person in, debrief them and help them to find another job,” says Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s Flanagan.
“This is the reality. There is an opioid epidemic. There is an alcohol problem. There is a cocaine problem. And all of those things are amplified in this particular environment. You have to change the culture. You can’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, woe is me,’” says Don Mahaney, owner of Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill.
People entering the workforce from probational and vocational programs face other challenges.
“People go through these programs because their lives have been pretty awful up to this point. A lot of them haven’t learned basic life-skills like how to show up for work, or how to listen and not be angry when your supervisor assigns you to do a task,” says Fuller.
That’s been an issue at Scratch, where a cook from Community Kitchen Pittsburgh who was building a reputation as a reliable and hard-working member of the kitchen team fell off the rails when he was moved from a prep-cook position to working a flat-top grill on the hot-line. “He had the skills necessary to do this. He just lacked the confidence to deal with this particular situation. Stressful, rapid change, happens in [a restaurant] kitchen, and we hadn’t prepared him for that,” Mahaney says, adding he felt he lacked the proper skill set to support the cook through the transition.
Chefs are looking for solutions. Creating an atmosphere that rejects the machismo of the brigade system and instead fosters positive and supportive communication creates a more stable workforce. For example, big Burrito Restaurant Group is leading a charge to limit working hours to between 40 and 50 per week, down from as many as 70 hours, something that will allow employees time to physically and mentally recover from the demands of working in a restaurant kitchen. Offering health insurance, discounts on gym memberships and suggesting group activities that don’t involve drinking all help.
And while reporting relapsed behavior is imperative, continued reinforcement of positive individual behavior is, too. “This happens over time. You build yourself up. You start believing you can do things. I don’t need a man because I can take care of myself. I don’t need things — drugs, money, alcohol — to ‘fix’ me. I can do that for myself,” says Nally.
“[Cooking] helped save my life. I tried other times to turn my life around but didn’t have anything to look forward to. This time I have something positive ...”
Kitchen skills, such as those learned at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, if applied diligently, are in high demand.
“We run ads [in local publications] every day trying to find people. And, for the last year and a half, we’ve run ads nationally, too,” says Tolga Sevdik, director of operations and partner at the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group.
His company operates Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye, täkō and Pork & Beans, four of the buzziest and busiest restaurants in Pittsburgh. This year they’re doubling down, with plans to open an additional four establishments. “We’re going to need a lot of people,” Sevdik says, noting that the new restaurants will add 80-plus back-of-house jobs to their current roster of 90 kitchen staff.
“We have to be very careful with out-placements. We want to make sure they are successes,” says Renewal’s Williams.
Renewal aims for people in its care to work 40 hours per week, though that number might be reduced if an individual isn’t yet physically or mentally capable, or if they are in enrolled in school. There are federal tax credits available to employers who hire Renewal reentrants. More importantly, the organization pre-screens potential hires, most of whom have faced difficult backgrounds and have challenging work histories.
“That screening is important. We want to be sure we get the right people,” says Sevdik. Beyond that, they don’t ask a lot of questions.
That response is echoed by many managers in charge of hiring back of house staff. “People make mistakes. Things happen. I don’t need to know how you ended up here,” says Borges of Spoon. “If there’s any industry that can provide a chance for people, it’s cooking.”
Mahaney, owner of Scratch, believes that a well-structured training program for both trainee and the host site can help potential employees learn the skills that will benefit both his kitchen and the broader community of Pittsburgh restaurants. To that end, he’s worked with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh to provide weeklong stages, during which a prospective employee would get first-hand experience working in the kitchen, and developed an extended, 12-week post-graduation curriculum that he hopes to implement, with some refinements, in the future. “Let’s see if we can push the training program to another level and get people the kitchen experience that’s difficult to get in a structured environment,” he says.
Sometimes, pieces don’t fall together, and a person won’t find a career in the kitchen. “They are trying to do the best they can. Some of them will bind to it and some won’t. But that’s like every other cook you find. The negative (of working with halfway houses) is minimal compared to the positive,” says Borges.